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Built for speed

A belt sander may look like a lowly woodworking tool. But sporting types race them, in front of cheering crowds.

By Danielle Dreilinger
Globe Correspondent / May 15, 2010

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Human ingenuity is a marvelous thing. Creative minds take a tedious task like sanding wood and create a tool — an electric belt sander — to ease and automate the process.

Then they take that tool, modify it and decorate it with all sorts of whimsical odds and ends, and send it screaming down a wooden track. Much to the excitement of cheering onlookers.

Last week, just days before the New England Belt Sander Racing Association’s spring tournament, racer-woodworkers Mark Terwilliger, Edie Twining, and brothers Jim and Dave Kenyon loaded that track, segment by segment, onto two dollies. They rolled it outside Kenyon Woodworking in Jamaica Plain, took an air pump, and blew all the sawdust off.

And the regular dust. It’s been two or three years since the association’s last race. For a specific date, they’d have to check their collection of commemorative T-shirts, Jim said.

A belt sander is a practical handheld device that takes the elbow grease out of a woodworking chore. A motor runs a loop of sandpaper around two rollers. Imagine a very small tank with one wide sandpaper tread.

If you hold the tool still, the grit of the sandpaper will bite into wood and begin sanding. But if you let it loose while it’s on, the belt of sandpaper will power the sander right across the floor. Quickly. It was only a matter of time before people started racing them.

In Boston, the urge to unharness all that belt-sanding energy came during the 1988 Olympic Games.

“We were trying to think of Olympic woodworking events,’’ said Jim, 53, of Westborough. “This is the safest.’’

Today, the racing extravaganza dubbed “Goin’ Nowhere Fast’’ will be held at the Armory in Somerville to benefit Community Servings. There will be a lot of locals there, but belt sander aficionados from around the region will plug in, too. Members of the Central Maine Power Tool Racing Association have said they will compete.

“There are some people who really find their calling in belt sander racing — people who amount to little or nothing in the real world,’’ said Dave, 55, of Roslindale

Back in the so-called Golden Age of the ’90s, the belt-sanding crew raced on the guano-strewn, deserted third floor of the JP brewery building. They called it “The Sanderdome.’’ That was long before the building was rehabbed, and the fall race would double as a Halloween party. After the main event was over, the partygoers — woodworkers, artists, designers, friends of friends — would plop their babies on the track, and the diaper brigade would have a race of their own.

It all sounds pretty terrific, and, in fact, belt sander racing sometimes attracts too many adherents for its own good. In recent years Massachusetts College of Art and Design students got involved. And they told their friends, and so on, and so on. In the past, the party has really ripped, so much so that the association had to shut the race down.

“They contributed a lot to the races for a few years because of their creativity,’’ said Dave, but “we stopped inviting our friends because too many people were coming.’’

This time around, they expect 15-20 sanders in the “stock’’ belt sander category and 10-15 in the “modified’’ category. Some have a single driver; others are a team effort.

The track, called the “X-2000,’’ looks like a cross between a bowling lane and an 80-foot-long ball return. There’s space for two vehicles (sanders), with an elevated channel in between so the electrical cords can unspool cleanly. There’s a peeled, pitted patch where the sanders spin their belts in victory.

“Back in the Golden Age we had an electronic timing system with electric eyes,’’ Dave said, “which we still have, but we don’t know how to work.’’

Despite the high speeds, there’s no need to worry about danger or even damage to the Armory’s faultlessly glossed floor: The crew has retrofitted a plexiglass sneeze guard to keep the vehicles on the track.

The “stock’’ category is comparatively simple. Competitors add a guiding mechanism to direct the sander down the track, but the biggest decision there is which kind to buy, said Glen Gurner, 55, of Roslindale. He recommended Porter-Cable, Bosch, and Makita.

The “modified’’ racers are more complex — and burn up the floor, traveling 75 feet in under 3 seconds. In 1992, his most glorious victory, Dave Kenyon beat Henri Matisse’s grandson.

Outsiders want to know what grit sandpaper they use (answer: fine) but that’s not what makes them fly.

“It’s about changing what’s inside,’’ said Edie Twining, 55, of West Roxbury. She recommended light machine oil, which has a certain James Dean drag race quality: The oil “burns fast and [the sander] dies and you have to buy a new one.’’

Gurner revealed another trick: Swap the front and back rollers. That’s what he did on the legendary Al’s Evil Twin, which won so often he retired it. Now his kids race.

That said, speed’s not the only factor. The competition is a beauty contest for belt sanders, with some competitors adorning the machines — and themselves — with fancy and funny finery.

There’s the ButtMobile, which boasts a rubber posterior on top of the sander. The sander points forward, and so does the butt.

After many runs, the rubber started to wear out. The thrifty owner tried to fix it with duct tape but finally gave in. “He got a new butt,’’ Dave said.

Years ago, a doctor decorated his sander with surgical implements and raw meat. Meanwhile, Jim calls his own race sander “Barbie on Board,’’ for its pilot, a Barbie.

Creativity is rewarded. There are awards for Best Dressed sander, Wasted Engineering, and Best Family Values. “This is my most prized possession,’’ Dave said, sweeping his arm toward his “Most Spiritually Bereft’’ trophy.

Jim objected. He thought readers might find it offensive.

“Buddha on a cellphone looking at himself in a mirror?’’ Dave said.

The attempts of tool companies and hardware stores to co-opt the racing insanity were doomed to fail. At a Home Depot-sponsored event in the early 2000s, “we won all the prizes,’’ Twining said.

Will they get the gold this year, after their long drought? The brothers Kenyon were a little confused by their own track. They examined the segments.

“Are these numbered?’’ Dave asked.

“They are numbered somewhere. Underneath maybe,’’ Jim said.

Dave noticed a sanded-down spot. “Is this a start?’’ he said.

Jim: “No, it’s the finish.’’

Regardless, the X-2000 looked good. “This thing was built to last,’’ Dave said.

The New England Belt Sander Racing Association Spring Nationals 2010 take place today at Arts at the Armory, 191 Highland Avenue, Somerville. Trials start at 1 p.m. The Chandler Travis Philharmonic plays at 5. Suggested donation is $10 for individuals, $20 for families or “if you’re employed.’’ Learn more at www.nebsra.org.

Send comments to gsection@ globe.com.

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